The first thing you should know about this production is that it's advisable to set out early and wrap up warm: the location of the modest Rose Theatre Trust is tucked away down backstreets and not easy to find, and the unheated, semi-open nature of the venue means that watching a play there can get chilly. Directors Alex Pearson and Jeremy Smith, evidently aware of this issue, provide blankets on request, and have also wisely chosen one of the shorter pieces in the Jacobethan repertoire: Dido clocks in at just 1hr and 40 minutes (no interval – and, FYI, no toilets on site).

Plotwise, Dido is largely adapted from Virgil's Aeneid, and tells the story of the eponymous Queen's love for Trojan war survivor Aeneas, and their eventual separation: I won't spoil the ending, but it is a tragedy, so expect bodies. The play begins not in Carthage but on Olympus, where Marlowe uses the familiar dramatic device of having the Gods interfere in the affairs of mortal men to disastrous effect: Jupiter, Juno and Venus (doubled by members of the main cast) all have a hand in the events which follow, commenting on and often directing the action.

Aeneas (James Burgess) and his followers Ilionus (Daniel Yabut), Achates (Carsten Garbode) and son Ascanius (Natasha Percival) are washed up on Carthage's shore after the sack of Troy. Afraid for her son, Aeneas's mother Venus makes Carthage's Queen Dido fall in love with him in order to ensure he will be protected and honoured. Naturally, this sets the cat among the pigeons, with the most ruffled feathers belonging to Iarbas, a neighbouring King in love with Dido.

As in Antony and Cleopatra, however, the besotted queen is a slave to her sudden passion and won't listen to reason; everyone must love and worship Aeneas as she does. She scandalises Carthage, not least her sister Anna (who's in love with Dido's spurned suitor Iarbas) by disappearing into a cave with Aeneas on a hunting expedition. Subsequently she tries everything, up to and including stealing his ships' sails, kidnapping his son, and declaring him King of Carthage, to stop Aeneas leaving for Italy, where he plans to revenge Troy – but all in vain. Her overwhelming obsession with her lover is somewhat reminiscent of Edward II's passion for Gaveston in Marlowe's play of the same name, and the consequences are just as dire.

The production, I'm glad to say, does justice to one of Marlowe's minor masterpieces: it's generally very well cast and directed with a sure, light touch. Holding the drama together is Rhiannon Sommers as Dido, whose central performance perfectly captures the Queen's unnerving combination of flirtatiousness and imperiousness: a Cleopatra in the making. Julia Taylor as Anna also impresses, and the supporting cast show their versatility in a number of doubled roles – especially Edward Walters, who moves smoothly from giggling Ganymede to brooding Iarbas, and Samantha Spurgin, almost unrecognisable after her transformation from seductive Venus into doddering old Nurse.

James Burgess as Aeneas underwhelmed me rather, and Walters, who has presence and smouldering charisma by the bagful, might have been better casting: but Burgess's restrained performance did emphasise that Aeneas is a perfectly normal bloke who wouldn't normally inspire crazed passion, and made Dido's love-madness that much more poignant.

The set and costumes are about as good as low-budget theatre gets. Costume designer Pam Tait gives us a sumptuous palette of satins and gauzes in red and gold (foreshadowing the fiery final scene), and manages adeptly to distinguish Gods from mortals through costume alone (potentially confusing with a small cast in multiple roles). Costume as status is important: Dido heaps the ragged Aeneas with more and more finery to show her love, and he emerges from the cave scene wearing her jewelled bracelet - a nice touch.

The setting of the Rose is a gift, too, and one which the directors and stage manager Ina Berggren do not waste: the audience is arranged on the viewing platform of the dig, looking out onto a shallow interior lake, which doubles brilliantly for the shore of Carthage; one scene is even played on the far side of the site (make sure to sit on the right of the stage to catch it). Candles illuminate the bare playing area and the venue is allowed to speak for itself, with very minimal set and props, and the general effect is rather magical.

So, if you want to see a rarely-revived drama in a truly unique setting, with a strong cast and a bit of living archaeology thrown in for good measure, book your tickets for Dido Queen of Carthage at the Rose: I'll certainly be looking out for whatever this vigorous young company does next.

Dido, Queen of Carthage, at The Rose, BanksideKaty Darby reviews Dido, Queen of Carthage by Christopher Marlowe at the Rose Theatre, Bankside.4